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Hidden Masters

I wrote this in March 2004, during my first visit to Chefchaouen, when I was lucky enough to meet the local painter Abdelaziz el Amrani.

I hiked with Aziz up the mountain behind his house, to the ruined building known as the Spanish Mosque. He pointed out that although the building’s tower is like a mosque, the floor plan of the building is too small for a mosque. Besides, it is divided into three small rooms, rather than one large area as one would expect. In any case, the setting is magnificent, on a high ridge overlooking the town, with an enormous, gnarled old tree growing just outside.

As we approached the mosque, Aziz pointed out what he called a “hot spot” where for a radius of just a few meters, regardless of the climate, the temperature is always warm. He said this is more noticeable in winter, because as you step into the zone, the change from the surroundings is more dramatic. A European geologist who visited the spot said that it fell “in the path of a hot star,” whatever that means. In any case, I too could observe the effect.

We descended from the mosque on a path that passed through the cemetery. As is typical of Muslim cemeteries, the graves are simple holes in the ground with a small headstone, grass growing over the body, and perhaps a rim of rocks to define the edges. Some recent graves are more imposing, with a concrete base and tiled sides built up above the earth, but the older traditional graves tend to melt into the earth over time. As a result, the dirt paths winding through the cemetery often cross over the remains of ancient tombs. The same earth is used and reused for centuries, so that after a generation or two there is no real “identity” to the tombs.

Aziz pointed out the whitewashed building at the heart of the cemetery that is the resting place of the local holy man or saint. Even in the smallest and humblest villages, the cemetery has as its focus a marabout such as this. The building is simple and unadorned, in many cases a single room at the center of which is the coffin of the saint, who is occasionally a woman. People enter to offer prayers and seek the saint’s blessing.

Aziz didn’t know the history of this particular saint, or how long he had been here, but he explained that it is usually someone who lives an ordinary life among the people of the town, who through his wisdom and exceptional character develops a reputation for holiness. After his death, his disciples and friends build a mausoleum in his honor. His spirit is believed to live on there in some form, and others choose to be buried near him to partake in the benefits. In this way, the cemetery is “seeded” and grows.

Aziz said that this tradition, which is typical of Morocco and of North Africa, is a Sufi one. He explained that the concept of the “hidden master” is one of the key ideas in Sufi thought. The holy man prefers to live a simple life amid his fellows. His special wisdom is known only to those few who are attuned to it, and it is only publicly proclaimed after his death. Another Sufi idea, he told me, is the importance of being in harmony with one’s surroundings. If we are in harmony, whatever we attempt will be easy. If we resist, it will be difficult, because we are creating our own obstacles.

I wanted to ask him how we can stay in harmony with our surroundings if they aren’t harmonious. What do we do in a situation of conflict and stress? I suppose the best thing to do in such a case is to remain apart. Wait for the opportunity and walk away.

As always, if you enjoy this type of writing, I encourage you to check out my Moroccan diary here, on another part of this site. You will find many more pieces like this one, and I’m adding to the collection all the time! Go over there, read your fill, then come back here and leave a note to tell me what you think.


Comment from el greco
Time: November 29, 2006, 00:45

Je découvre ton riche Blog
avec plaisir
et curiosité
Je t’en félicite!!

Keep in toutch

Comment from Amine
Time: November 30, 2006, 02:11

Always a pleasure to read u :)

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